Weekend Homework: UNC, UVA match contrasting styles

UNC and Virginia's keys to victory (1:50)

Former Oregon State coach Craig Robinson break down the keys to victory for North Carolina and Virginia when they faceoff Saturday. (1:50)

It was minutes after Duke's stunning win over North Carolina on Feb. 17, just after that win had been secured on a broken final possession from UNC, when Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, eyes glazed with tears, made the season's most openly humble admission: He should have called timeout.

For most, this was an obvious conclusion. For Williams, it was basketball heresy.

"We didn't get as good of a shot as I thought we would get, but that's something I've always believed in," Williams said. "I say it's my fault. If we had to do it all over again tomorrow night, I'll probably do the same thing 'cause I think that's the best way to play."

Williams arrived at North Carolina in 2003. In his 12 seasons since (not including 2015-16), his teams have ranked, on average, 14th in Division I in adjusted tempo. All the while, the game around Carolina became more cautious, more physical and more obsessed with the intricacies of half-court efficiency. Each season, college basketball plumbed new collective depths in both tempo and points. Yet one of the game's most storied and successful programs remained stubbornly resolute in its belief that beating the other team down the floor, whether in the first minute or the 40th, was the best way to play.

Few programs are as stylistically devoted to a method of play. The Virginia Cavaliers are one of those few. It is that clash of styles that makes No. 7 North Carolina's 6:30 p.m. ET trip to face No. 3 Virginia on Saturday the weekend's most interesting game.

Not that there aren't other reasons. A matchup of top-10 teams with realistic national title aspirations is always inherently worth watching. Two of the top five or six Wooden Award contenders (Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon, North Carolina's Brice Johnson) will take the same floor. A No. 1 seed remains in play for both teams.

And there are some minor ACC title-chase considerations here, too: With three regular-season games remaining, UNC is alone in first place. The Tar Heels lead Louisville and Miami (who also meet Saturday) by a game apiece; UVA is two games back. Saturday is, obviously, a huge chance for the Cavaliers to make the race even tighter before the final week. It is North Carolina's chance to extend that lead in advance of their final two games, the latter of which, on March 5, is at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And it shapes up as a determinative contest to see whether UVA can -- after two seasons upending UNC and Duke's rarely uninterrupted run of ACC control -- extend their symbolic insurgency for another year.

Yet the most interesting thing remains the contrast in basketball styles. Just as Williams has spent his entire career preaching the importance of transition and fast breaks, Bennett has spent the past decade -- first at Washington State, then for seven seasons at Virginia -- methodically excising transition play out of his teams' games.

In his first nine years as a head coach (not counting 2015-16), Bennett's teams broke the 61 possessions-per-game barrier just once, in 2009-10, his first year in Charlottesville. Their average rank in adjusted tempo was 334th. This season, the Cavaliers' 61.5 possessions per game (adjusted) make them the sport's slowest -- with 351 teams, that's an accomplishment in and of itself.

Bennett's pack-line defensive scheme has been dissected to great effect in recent seasons, and rightfully so. The system his father, Dick Bennett, pioneered at Wisconsin-Green Bay has made the Cavaliers one of college basketball's most consistently punishing defensive teams.

For the pack-line to be the pack-line, though, all five of its defenders must be behind the ball, working as a group, in a conventional half-court possession.

In addition to their dominative defense, the Cavaliers play careful (though often beautiful) offense. They rarely turn the ball over, because steals lead to transition. They don't crash the boards, because late recoveries lead to transition. They don't -- despite 40.1 percent accuracy as a team -- shoot many 3s, because long rebounds lead to transition. This, too, is a holistic basketball philosophy: Virginia's offense is always the first step in its quest to get a stop.

It is a system, in many ways, designed to eliminate the things North Carolina likes to do. This is Williams' slowest team at UNC relative to its competition, but the Tar Heels still average 72.3 (adjusted) possessions per game. According to Synergy scouting data, 18.5 percent of their offensive possessions come in transition. Virginia's opponents average 11 percent in transition. What's worse? The consensus best-bet against the pack-line is, essentially, to beat it with 3s over the top. Good looks on the interior are hard to find. North Carolina has made 28.3 percent of its shots from 3 in ACC play. (Gulp.)

Of course, style can only account for so much. Maybe Johnson's individual talent is too much for the Cavaliers (who might be without forward Isaiah Wilkins) on the block; maybe the Hoos struggle to score against what is, in its own right, a very good defensive team. Maybe the Tar Heels will need a bucket late, and Williams will call a timeout, and the game-winning play will ensue. Who knows?

What is certain, though, is that Saturday's game -- already a huge, must-watch matchup of top-10-ranked ACC and national title contenders -- is also a meeting of two of the sport's most purely crystallized and deeply held philosophies on what is, as Williams might say, the best way to play. And they couldn't be more different.


Awesome ACC game of the weekend, runner-up division

No. 11 Louisville Cardinals at No. 12 Miami (FL) Hurricanes

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN3

UNC-UVA is obviously the marquee matchup of the weekend in the ACC. It's the marquee matchup in all of college basketball. And while the Cavaliers and Tar Heels appear to be the two best teams in the league overall, both Louisville and Miami remain just one game behind UNC in the conference standings. For the Cardinals -- who have embraced the ACC title as a (kind of sad, but also kind of impressive) substitute for their now nonexistent postseason -- it's particularly big.

Most Likely Coronation Ceremony

Texas Tech Red Raiders at No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks

Saturday, noon ET, ESPN

With all due respect to the Red Raiders -- and we mean that sincerely, considering their five straight wins, upsets of Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma, and furious push into the NCAA tournament bracket -- Saturday afternoon in Lawrence, Kansas, is all about the Jayhawks. More specifically, it's about the Jayhawks officially sealing their 12th consecutive share of the Big 12 title. One win will do the job. Given that this game is at home, and that Bill Self has more Big 12 titles than home losses in the past decade-plus, no one would blame the craftsmen down at the conference trophy shop if they got a head start engraving.

Latest Opportunity for Kaleb Tarczewski to Punch a Fan

No. 9 Arizona Wildcats at No. 22 Utah Utes

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

"Eventually what's going to happen in the Pac-12 is this: An Arizona player is going to punch a fan, and they are going to punch the fan out of self-defense," Arizona coach Sean Miller said Thursday night, after Colorado fans stormed the court following the Buffaloes' 75-72 loss at Colorado. "If 7-foot-2, 250-pound Kaleb Tarczewski gets bumped literally within three seconds of the game ending and he retaliates, what would be the response of our conference?"

Miller has a point: Losing a game is an emotionally fraught experience. Frustration is high. Nerves are exposed. Having a few hundred college kids immediately surrounding you, bumping into you, saying who-knows-what to you -- it seems bound to lead to a nationally televised disaster sooner rather than later. Yet now that Miller has put it in our minds, all we can think about is Tarczewski getting a really good shot on an obnoxious bro in a backwards hat. We're not saying we want that to happen. We're just saying the mental image is vivid. Anyway, Utah fans? If you win, don't storm the court. You're too good, for one thing. But also: That dude is massive.

Best Rebirth

No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners at No. 25 Texas Longhorns

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

The Sooners were never truly dead, of course. They just hit a rough patch in a brutal conference -- the kind of rough patch Self said every team in the league has had at least once this season. Still, the three losses in four games OU suffered from Feb. 6 to Feb. 17, which included upsets at Kansas State and Texas Tech and (maybe most disappointingly) Feb. 13's home loss to the Jayhawks, had the effect of creating doubt as to the Sooners' once-undeniable Final Four chances. Naturally, that seems like a total overreaction now; Lon Kruger's team rebounded with a 14-point road win at West Virginia and a 71-49 mutilation of in-state rival Oklahoma State on Wednesday night. If they manage to go on the road and win at Texas -- a team that nearly made it an 0-4 stretch earlier in the month -- then the Sooners are officially back. Not that they really ever left.

Counter-intuitive Slump-Buster of the Weekend

No. 10 Maryland Terrapins at No. 20 Purdue Boilermakers

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN

Speaking of the Sooners, last week's Weekend Homework noted that a road game at West Virginia was basically the last thing any struggling team would want to see on its schedule. Then, of course, Oklahoma handled it with ease. Similarly: An impending road matchup with Purdue guard Rapheal Davis -- the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten, and maybe the best in the country -- is the last thing any struggling perimeter player should want to face. Maryland's Melo Trimble is that struggling player. In his past four games (against D-I opponents), Trimble is 10-of-47 from the field. In his past three games, he has averaged 6.5 turnovers and 4.3 assists. Generally speaking, that is not the kind of form in which you want to greet Mr. Davis. But hey, it worked for Oklahoma. Maybe it can work for Melo.